OPINION: Read to Succeed Poised to Fail Students – Greenville Journal
I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.
In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.
First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.
Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.
Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).
Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.
My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).
That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.
While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.
Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.
Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.
So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.
If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.
Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.
As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.
There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.
Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.
There is a disturbing but predictable formula when you combine the University of Arkansas (and dig a bit to the Walton money funding the Orwellian-named Department of Education Reform) and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter chain that results in, at best, careless misinformation or, at worst, brazen deception.
Let’s start at the ironic end to a 2 August 2017 press release on the relationship between UofA and KIPP:
“KIPP helped me to not only be adaptable, but to stay motivated,” she said. “I think an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ best describes my KIPP experience,” Walton said. ” ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.'”
The irony is that the sentiment ascribed here to Frost’s poem is a common misreading that parallels how KIPP and charter advocates impose their ideology onto what we know about KIPP/charter schools in the service of the brand and not the students (noting here how this press release allows the former KIPP student* to do all the heavy lifting).
Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in fact, is illustrative here, but not in the way intended.
Misreading and mis-teaching this iconic poem fail in one extremely important way: ignoring that the speaker in Frost’s poem repeatedly notes that the two roads are the same: “as just as fair,” “Had worn them really about the same,” and “And both that morning equally lay.”
The poem actually stresses that making choices is mostly unavoidable and certainly builds everyone’s fate, but the poem is also a satire about regretting choices, as Orr explains:
Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside—an impulse that Frost equated with the romantic predisposition for “crying over what might have been.” Frost, Thompson writes, believed that his friend “would take the poem as a gentle joke and would protest, ‘Stop teasing me.’”
Therefore, Frost’s much mangled poem offers us two lessons missed by the UofA/KIPP agenda: (1) there is almost no difference between or among types of schools (charter v. public or private v. public), and (2) the claims made by KIPP and other charter advocates are far more complex than they seem on the surface (as is the poem).
The grand claims of KIPP have now drifted toward how well students attend and graduate college, but KIPP has done as all the other charter and choice advocates have by constantly changing what they claim their form of education reform achieves.
Press release rhetoric falls apart, however, once the claims are carefully examined. Here are just a few examples of KIPP and charter exaggeration and deception:
- The Alum-lie, Gary Rubinstein
KIPP is correct that schools that only count students who complete 12th grade will have inflated scores compared to KIPP that counts students who complete 8th grade. But what KIPP doesn’t mention is that the fairest way to make a comparison to the 9% number is to start counting at 5th grade. KIPP actually has a pretty big attrition between 5th and 8th grade so the true ‘gold standard’ is really not used by anyone. All the numbers are inflated. KIPPs might be inflated less than the others, but it still is so they can whine that the others are cheating worse than they are on this statistic, but they should admit that they are doing it too, though to a lesser degree.
- Does KIPP Deserve To Expand In Philly?, Gary Rubinstein
- KIPP School Booted From US News Best Schools List, Gary Rubinstein
- Jersey Jazzman: When “Miracle” Charter Schools Shed Students
This most recent press release from UofA/KIPP is yet another example of how charter advocacy and the entire education reform agenda are awash in misinformation, steering the rampant misreading of these reforms by politicians and the public.
I fear that like the satirized speaker in Frost’s poem, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence”: When you see “miracle” claims that are too good to be true, well, they are not true.
Shame on UofA and KIPP for continuing to traffic in such lies.
* NOTE: Certainly, two important points must be made about this student’s experience: (1) Everyone can fairly celebrate her success and pride in that success, while (2) an anecdote based on one person’s experience cannot prove or disprove any sort of generalizations. Thus, this student ascribing her success to KIPP in no way makes that true, even though she genuinely feels that way.
For Further Reading
The school choice movement has its roots in mid-twentieth century, and was bolstered by some ugly truths about racism in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement and public school integration.
While school choice advocacy has maintained some foundational catch phrases such as “innovation” and relied on appeals to uncritical faith in market forces over “the damned government,” school choice has also maintained two key patterns: (1) promises associated with school choice advocacy have mostly failed, and thus, (2) “choice” has morphed repeatedly into new versions to stay ahead of all the bad news about outcomes falling short of those promises.
The last decade, however, has revealed a school choice gold mine in the charter school movement that appears to blend the public’s support for public schools with the allure of parental choice.
However, on balance, charter school advocacy has proven to be mostly rhetoric and absent evidence in ways similar to the larger school choice movement.
Public and charter schools, for example, are currently plagued with rising segregation, and both embrace policies that can fairly be labeled racist and classist—leading the NAACP to maintain a strongly skeptical position about the credibility of charter schools.
And when charter schools appear to succeed where public schools do not, a careful analysis nearly always reveals that what is too good to be true is, in fact, not true.
School choice innovation, including charter school innovation, actually has little to do with education and more to do with keeping ahead of the evidence in order to maintain political and public support for finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.
For a glimpse into how the charter movement seeks mostly to keep itself afloat, often at the expense of children and their families, consider Paul Bowers’s Erskine College’s new role as charter school gatekeeper could change landscape of public education.
Bowers hits a key point in the following:
Across the U.S., the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been sounding the alarm about a trend it calls “authorizer shopping,” which it calls “a growing threat to overall charter school quality.”
“Authorizer shopping happens when a charter school chooses an initial authorizer or changes authorizers specifically to avoid accountability,” the group said in a 2016 report. “A low-performing school may shop for a new authorizer to avoid closure, or reopen under a new authorizer after closure.”
Also important to highlight is, as Bowers notes, how this new phase of charter expansion linked to less or no accountability is appealing to the least effective forms of charter schools:
Two of the first schools to express an interest in the new public charter school sponsor, the Charter Institute at Erskine College, are the S.C. Virtual Charter School and Cyber Academy of South Carolina. The two schools enrolled more than 4,000 students combined in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year.
The hard truths about educating children in a free society in order to create a more perfect union, to reach and sustain an equitable democracy, are that public education has mostly failed the children who need it most because the U.S. is plagued by political cowardice and that schemes labeled “education reform” are mostly even worse alternatives (including school choice and charter schools) to the mismanaged public system.
Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. called for addressing poverty directly and thus eradicate related social inequities and empower public institutions:
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. …
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
King’s plea has been repeatedly justified since the claims that education is the great equalizer never materializes. For example, in Equal Pay Day for African-American Women, By the Numbers Emily Crockett confronts:
African-American women only earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by non-Hispanic white men, according to the NWLC analysis; the figure for women overall is 77 cents. That’s based on the average earnings of female and male full-time, year-round workers taken from Census data.
The pay gap for Black women varies based on age and industry. Older Black women have it the hardest—the pay gap is only 82 cents on the dollar for 15-year-old to 24-year-old Black women compared to white men, but the gap widens to 67 cents and 59 cents, respectively, for Black women ages 25-to-44 and 45-to-64.
As for industries, Black women working as physicians and surgeons—a high-wage and male-dominated occupation—make only 52 cents for every dollar paid to their white male counterparts. Black women fared slightly better in lower-paid occupations, making 86 cents on the dollar in male-dominated, mid-wage construction industries and 85 cents on the dollar working as low-wage, mostly female personal care aides. …
The fact that Black women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs doesn’t help, the analysis said. Black women make up 14 percent of low-wage workers and 6 percent of the overall workforce.
Education levels don’t make much of an impact on the high wage gap between Black women and non-Hispanic white men. While more education corresponds with higher wages for both Black women and white men, Black women still make between 61 and 66 cents on the dollar compared to their counterparts at every education level [emphasis added]. African-American women have to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to make as much as white men who didn’t finish college.
This equity gap along race and gender lines is a lingering and powerful fact in the U.S.
Education reform, then, especially under the guise of school choice/charter schools, is once again failing to address directly the root causes of why we believe public education needs reform in the first place.
The only real innovation among the charter school advocates is how many ways they can avoid the hard truths about reforming schools and the impotence of education to overcome social inequity and injustice.
Paul Gorski, currently preparing a revised edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, has initiated #FixInjusticeNotKids on social media, a hashtag that captures perfectly the primary fracture between mainstream education reformers and social justice education reformers.
As some examples, here are Tweets of mine addressing this powerful message:
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) July 25, 2017
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) July 25, 2017
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) July 25, 2017
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) July 25, 2017
Many elements of mainstream reform embrace a deficit view of children and students, specifically black and brown students as well as students living in poverty. This ideology blames the victims of social inequity, racism, classism, and sexism; it creates a laser focus on the individual and blinds us to systemic injustice.
Support #FixInjusticeNotKids in word and action to seek ways to reject deficit ideology and to end inequity and injustice so that the potential of all children can be achieved among a people who genuinely believe all children matter,
In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.
Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.
Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:
Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.
Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.
Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”
Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.
The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.
Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.
Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”
Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.
For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.
So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.
Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:
- Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
- SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
- Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
- The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.
While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.
Having been extensively cited in recent news articles on education, I have received the typical responses, both by email and an Op-Ed (High expectations lead to achievement).
What is notable about these disgruntled responses can be seen directly in the headline above—a dependence on soaring and idealistic rhetoric to mask a complete failure to either discount my evidence or to provide any credible evidence for the counter arguments.
A recent email argued that I was causing more harm than good for emphasizing the impact of racism on literacy education and achievement by students; the rebuttal, however, was peppered with “I believe” and not a single effort to rebut the dozens of research studies I provided on both grade retention and racism/sexism.
While I pressed that point in a few replies, the offended person only ever produced as some sort of evidence a TED Talk, an unintended confession that his world-view depends on whiz-bang showmanship and seeing in any outlier example a confirmation of his biases—what Maia Szalavitz identifies as “’fundamental attribution error’. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.”
The emails were almost entirely rhetorical, like a TED Talk, and then divorced from any sort of empirical evidence.
The Op-Ed reflects in a more public way this same disturbing pattern. William W. Brown, founder and chairman of the board of Legacy Early College, holds forth in defense of the charter school’s “no excuses” approach to educating poor and mostly black/brown students, an ideology and set of policies that I have rejected for many years as inherently racist and classist.
While Brown quotes a few of my comments from a news article and then suggests he aims to rebut them, he merely slips each time into restating the ideology of the charter school, the rhetoric of high expectations.
Early in the commentary, Brown notes: “However, Thomas does not acknowledge that a college education is the single most reliable way to lessen the effect of systemic racism and end poverty.”
Here is the exact strategy employed by Arne Duncan throughout his tenure as Secretary of Education: make a grand rhetorical claim that most people in the U.S. believe (education is the “great equalizer”), and then offer no evidence it is true while hoping no one calls you on it.
The truth is hard to swallow, however, because education can be shown through ample evidence to have very little impact on erasing inequity driven by racism and sexism. For just a few of many examples, please consider the following:
Brown also cites this: “He goes on to say, ‘Successful people in the United States tend to be white and come from privilege and they’re not necessarily working harder than anybody else but they have incredible advantages.'”
And then makes no effort to address why he believes my comment is “problematic.” Perhaps he could consider the following:
Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality. (Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun)
One other tactic I experience is the subtle and not-so-subtle effort by the “no excuses” crowd to turn charges of racism toward those of us calling out the racism of “no excuses” practices: “If you believe the zip code where you were born should determine your educational outcome, you basically believe that some people aren’t built for success, which is — to put it bluntly — racist.”
Two aspects of this strategy are important to highlight. First, Brown here and others must misrepresent my claims (I have never and would never embrace or suggest that we ask less of any child or that some group of people have less ability than others because of inherent deficiencies; in fact, my scholarship and public work directly reject deficit ideologies).
Second, this rhetorical slight of hand is designed to point anywhere other than the person making the claim.
This second part of the move is important for charter advocates and the “no excuses” crowd because evidence is not on their side.
The Legacy Charter school endorsed by Brown has three consecutive years of “below average” state report cards (2012-2014, the most recent since report card assessments have been suspended in SC until this coming fall).
And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:
- Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
- Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.
The “high expectations” movement, again mostly aimed at black/brown and poor children, has some serious flaws because the rhetoric is discredited by the evidence.
In short, education is not the “great equalizer” in the U.S. And committing to “high expectations” for children living inequitable and overburdened lives suggests their struggles are mostly their fault because they simply are not working hard enough.
That is a calloused and racist/classist lie.
As I detailed above, success in the U.S. is mostly about advantages, not working hard.
Brown concludes with a flurry of rhetoric: “You could burn the world down as it is because it’s too hard to fix systemic injustices, or you could build it up to the sky because you know in your heart that’s where we belong. Keep your matches. I’m grabbing a hammer and a ladder.”
What should disturb us is how easily the winners (even those claiming good intentions) in the U.S. are willing to throw up their hands when challenged to address systemic racism, classism, and sexism.
In fact, this admission is awash in excuses and absent the exact resilience needed to address inequity that these adults demand of children, who must somehow set aside their lives each day they walk through the doors of school and behave in ways the adults refuse to do.